Organic Seed And Development

Over the course of a conversation with a reader, there was some discussion about seed patents, development and organics. The reader said that organic seeds can be patented and insinuated that it would be in the same manner as GMO seeds, to which many people are vehemently opposed. His argument was good, in that if what he was saying was true, then it may make many people who insist on buying solely organic for the sake of preserving open-pollinated seed in the marketplace a priority, to re-think their positions.

So I brought it up within my organic growing community: What is the deal? Can organic seed be patented and restricted for use by commercial growers? The answer is yes, but it is a bit more complicated than it sounds.

First: Organic is a methodology, not a patent. A patented seed may be grown organically as well as a patented seed may be grown with an oil-subsidized methodology. The patent itself has nothing to do with organics growing practices.

Any seed can be patented assuming they meet some criteria, including:

  • A living plant organism which expresses a set of characteristics determined by its single, genetic makeup or genotype, which can be duplicated through asexual reproduction, but which can not otherwise be "made" or "manufactured."
  • Sports, mutants, hybrids, and transformed plants are comprehended; sports or mutants may be spontaneous or induced. Hybrids may be natural, from a planned breeding program, or somatic in source. While natural plant mutants might have naturally occurred, they must have been discovered in a cultivated area.

Plant patents help seed breeders make a living. But the example is far different than GMOs for this reason: Patented non-GMO seeds are often hybrids which rarely, if ever, are grown as a seed crop because hybrids do not produce genetically identical seed; the seed will  produce fruit of either parent variety, but very unlikely to be the child variety, which is the seed you planted. Therefore, this kind of patent doesn't really matter. The seed isn't kept anyway. Those seeds need to be re-purchased as necessary. That is why many of them are not patented, because the seed would have to be re-purchased, regardless of a patent.

There is nothing wrong with people making money off of their work; proprietary ownership is a necessity in some cases where commercially grown products violate years - or even decades' worth - of research.  The problem many people have with GMOs is that they are patented and are taking each staple crop one-by-one: corn, rape (canola), soy, wheat, alfalfa, cotton. These are the basic crops of our world.

So while GMOs may not be the only patented product, they are the most common and the most dangerous. Because GMOs are often staple crops grown in monocultures that neither invite nor encourage reputable growing practices, the companies that make them can't be seen in any altruistic light. I wish they could, but the more one learns, the easier it is to see that the real benefit is in controlling the food system, not necessarily a seed.

Photo credit: dyogi